We weeded in my mom’s church community garden plot this morning. Robyn and I joined a work party cleaning paths and rototilling the winter overgrowth in the 12 x 25 foot plots. They were working within a small time window while the clay soil was moist and workable. Another few weeks here in California’s San Joaquin valley, and the soil would be like bricks. (photo: Janaia’s mom Rowena, center).
As I pulled weeds in the gentle sunshine amid sonorous mockingbirds, I thought of community and family gardens starting to be worked on everywhere. This garden is barely a year old, and part of a growing movement across the continent (okay, pun intended). A welcome movement towards relocalizing food.
As I pulled weeds, I thought of the gardens we’ve visited and taped, most recently several community gardens in the Pacific Northwest. From them, I passed along two seed ideas to this garden’s coordinator for future consideration.
One is to create a community garden rather than separate plots. It could be a neighborhood garden like Judy Alexander helped coordinate in Port Townsend (video forthcoming), or the Wendell Berry Garden that John and Maia O’Brien showed us in Olympia, Washington. Rather than waste a lot of space with paths around separate plots, there is one large garden — rows of squash and beans and beets and lettuce and much more. Participants share in the decision making, the work, and the harvest.
This structure uses people’s strengths and capability, rather than each person having to do it all on their own plot. As Judy Alexander remarked, someone who may be physically incapable of physical garden work can do the bookkeeping. Those who are more knowledgeable can teach the newbies.
As John wrote, their garden structure “enables … very high productivity and quality, since we decide collectively what we grow, how much, what variety, etc. instead of 20 little plots each with their 3-4 broccoli plants.” It also permits growing a wider variety of crops and encourages biodiversity. And it trains people collaborative decision-making, democracy at the grass roots level. Or the beet roots level, in this case.
The second idea comes from our friends Llyn Peabody and Chris Burns, coordinators at Alpine Sharing Garden in Oregon (meet them in my blog A Sharing Garden That Grows Community, video forthcoming). Their garden is planted as described above — one large garden whose produce is shared by participants, with surplus going to the local food bank.
The beds are highly mounded. Both the beds and walk spaces between are heavily mulched with straw. I mean heavily — many inches thick! The thick straw keeps moisture in and weeds down. Chris pulled aside some mulch to show the earth below providing habitat for bacteria and bugs and worms happily at work building soil. He pointed out plant roots stretching into the walkways, expanding the growing space. And of course the straw breaks down to help build soil.
Like these examples, I’m sure there’s a lot of creative genius at work in the gardening movement, flourishing along with the plants. May the movement spread across the land, in every vacant parcel urban, suburban, rural. It produces not only fresh local delicious often-organic beautiful real produce, but also people reconnecting to the living earth and one another.